Abstract: The Post-Heroic Generation: American Independent Inventors, 1900-1950

Eric S. Hintz


My dissertation examines the changing fortunes of American independent inventors from approximately 1900 to 1950. By World War I, the public (and later, many historians) had come to believe that corporate R&D labs had displaced "heroic" individual inventors like Thomas Edison as the wellspring of innovation. However, a close look at the historical U.S. patent data shows that patents granted to individual inventors outnumbered corporate patents until 1933 and still represented 46.5 percent of total patents in 1950. Indeed, independent inventors continued to contribute many important innovations throughout the early twentieth century, including Samuel Ruben's Duracell batteries, Edwin Land's Polaroid film, and Chester Carlson's Xerox photocopying process. Thus, contrary to most interpretations of this period, I argue that "post-heroic" independent inventors remained an important, though less visible, source of inventions in the early twentieth century. Accordingly, my dissertation describes how this lesser known cohort of inventors navigated the evolving business practices and political-economic crises of the early twentieth century, a period of expanding corporate R&D, the Great Depression, and two world wars. More broadly, it helps explain how American independent inventors—once revered as heroes—gradually lost their cultural primacy while corporate brands became increasingly associated with high-tech innovation.